I Who Have Never Known Men

Jacqueline Harpman, Translated by Ros Schwartz

April 27, 2022 
The following is excerpted from Jacqueline Harpman's newly-translated novel, I Who Have Never Known Men. Harpman was a Belgian author of over 15 novels, winning numerous prizes, including the Prix ​​Médicis and the Prix ​​Victor-Rossel, among others. Schwartz has translated numerous works of fiction and non-fiction from French. he recipient of a number of awards, she was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2009 and received the Institute of Translation and Interpreting's John Sykes Memorial Prize for Excellence in 2017.

Since I barely venture outside these days, I spend a lot of time in one of the armchairs, rereading the books. I only recently started taking an interest in the prefaces. The authors talk readily about themselves, explaining their reasons for writing the book. This surprises me: surely it was more usual in that world than in the one in which I have lived for people to pass on the knowledge they had acquired? They often seem to feel the need to emphasize that they wrote the book not out of vanity, but because someone asked them to, and that they had thought about it long and hard before accepting. How strange! It suggests that people were not avid to learn, and that you had to apologize for wanting to convey your knowledge. Or, they explain why they felt it was appropriate to publish a new translation of Proust, because previous efforts, laudable though they may be, lacked something or other. But why translate when it must have been so easy to learn different languages and read anything you wanted directly? These things leave me utterly baffled. True, I am extremely ignorant: apparently, I know even less of these matters than I thought I did. The authors express their gratitude to those who taught them, who opened the door to this or that avenue of knowledge, and, because I have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about, I usually read these words with a degree of indifference. But suddenly, yesterday, my eyes filled with tears; I thought of Anthea, and was overcome by a tremendous wave of grief. I could picture her, sitting on the edge of a mattress, her knees to one side, sewing patiently with her makeshift thread of plaited hairs which kept snapping, stopping to look at me, astonished, quick to recognize my ignorance and teach me what she knew, apologizing that it was so little, and I felt a huge wrench, and began to sob. I had never cried before. There was a pain in my heart as powerful as the pain of the cancer in my belly, and I who no longer speak because there is no one to hear me, began to call her. Anthea! Anthea! I shouted. I couldn’t forgive her for not being there, for having allowed death to snatch her, to tear her from my clumsy arms. I chastised myself for not having held on to her, for not having understood that she couldn’t go on anymore. I told myself that I’d abandoned her because I was frigid, as I had been all my life, as I shall be when I die, and so I was unable to hug her warmly, and that my heart was frozen, unfeeling, and that I hadn’t realized that I was desperate.

Never before had I been so devastated. I would have sworn it couldn’t happen to me; I’d seen women trembling, crying and screaming, but I’d remained unaffected by their tragedy, a witness to impulses I found unintelligible, remaining silent even when I did what they asked of me to assist them. Admittedly, we were all caught up in the same drama that was so powerful, so all-embracing that I was unaware of anything that wasn’t related to it, but I had come to think that I was different. And now, racked with sobs, I was forced to acknowledge too late, much too late, that I too had loved, that I was capable of suffering and that I was human after all.

I felt as if this pain would never be appeased, that it had me in its grip for ever, that it would prevent me from devoting myself to anything else, and that I was allowing it to do so. I think that that is what they call being consumed with remorse. I would no longer be able to get up, think, or even cook my food, and I would let myself slowly waste away. I was deriving a sort of morbid pleasure from imagining myself giving in to despair, when the physical pain returned. It was so sudden and so acute that it distracted me from the mental pain. I found this abrupt swing from one to the other funny, and there I was, I who not surprisingly never laugh, doubled up in agony, and laughing.

When the pain abated, I wondered whether I had ever laughed before. The women often used to laugh, and I believe I had sometimes joined in, but I was unsure. I realized then that I never thought about the past. I lived in a perpetual present and I was gradually forgetting my story. At first, I shrugged, telling myself that it would be no great loss, since nothing had happened to me, but soon I was shocked by that thought. After all, if I was a human being, my story was as important as that of King Lear or of Prince Hamlet that William Shakespeare had taken the trouble to relate in detail. I made the decision almost without realizing it: I would do likewise. Over the years, I’d learned to read fluently; writing is much harder, but I’ve never been daunted by obstacles. I do have paper and pencils, although I may not have much time. Now that I no longer go off on expeditions, no occupation calls me, so I decided to start at once. I went into the cold store, took out the meat that I would eat later and left it to defrost, so that when hunger struck, my food would soon be ready. Then I sat down at the big table and began to write.

As I write these words, my tale is over. Everything around me is in order and I have fulfilled the final task I set myself. It only took me a month, which has perhaps been the happiest month of my life. I do not understand that: after all, what I was describing was only my strange existence which hasn’t brought me much joy. Is there a satisfaction in the effort of remembering that provides its own nourishment, and is what one recollects less important than the act of remembering? That is another question that will remain unanswered: I feel as though I am made of nothing else.

As far back as I can recall, I have been in the bunker. Is that what they mean by memories? On the few occasions when the women were willing to tell me about their past, their stories were full of events, comings and goings, men… but I am reduced to calling a memory the sense of existing in the same place, with the same people and doing the same things—in other words, eating, excreting and sleeping. For a very long time, the days went by, each one just like the day before, then I began to think, and everything changed. Before, nothing happened other than this repetition of identical gestures, and time seemed to stand still, even if I was vaguely aware that I was growing and that time was passing. My memory begins with my anger.

Obviously, I have no way of knowing how old I was. The others had been adult for a long time whereas I appeared to be prepubescent. But my development stopped there: I started to get hair under my arms and on my pubes, my breasts grew a little, and then everything came to a halt. I never had a period. The women told me I was lucky, that I wouldn’t have the bother of bleeding and the precautions to be taken so as not to stain the mattresses. I’d be spared the tedious monthly task of washing out the rags they had to jam between their legs as best they could, by squeezing together their thigh muscles, since they had nothing to hold them in place, and I wouldn’t have to suffer stomach cramps like so many adolescent girls. But I didn’t believe them: they nearly all menstruated, and how can you feel privileged not to have something that everyone else has? I felt they were deceiving me.

Back then, I wasn’t curious about things, and it didn’t occur to me to ask what the point of periods was. Perhaps I was naturally quiet, in any case, the response my rare questions did receive wasn’t exactly encouraging. More often than not, the women would sigh and look away, saying ‘What use would it be for you to know if we told you?’, which made me feel I was disturbing or upsetting them. I had no idea, and I didn’t press the matter. It wasn’t until much later that Anthea explained to me about periods. She told me that none of the women had much education; they were factory workers, typists or shop assistants—words that had never meant very much to me, and that they weren’t much better informed than I was. All the same, when I did find out, I felt they hadn’t really made an effort to teach me. I was furious. Anthea said that I wasn’t entirely wrong and tried to explain their reasons. I may come back to this later, if I remember, but at the time I want to write about, I was livid. I felt I was being scorned, as if I was incapable of understanding the answers to the few questions I asked, and I resolved not to take any further interest in the women.

I was surly all the time, but I was unaware of it, because I didn’t know the words for describing moods. The women bustled about, busying themselves with the few day-to-day activities but never inviting me to join them. I would crouch down and watch whatever there was to see. On reflection, that was almost nothing. They’d be sitting chatting, or, twice a day, they’d prepare the meal. Gradually, I turned my attention to the guards who paced up and down continually outside our cage. They were always in threes, a few paces apart, observing us, and we generally pretended to ignore their presence, but I grew inquisitive. I noticed that one of them was different: taller, slimmer and, as I realized after a while, younger. That fascinated me. In their more cheerful moments, the women would talk of men and love. They’d giggle and tease me when I asked what was so funny. I went over everything I knew: kisses, which were given on the mouth, embraces, making eyes at someone, playing footsie, which I didn’t understand at all, and then came seventh heaven—my goodness! Given that I’d never seen any sky at all and had no idea what the first heaven or any of the others in between were, I didn’t dwell on it. They would also complain about the brutality. It hurt, men didn’t care about women, they got them pregnant and then walked out, saying, ‘How do I know it’s mine?’ Sometimes the women would declare that it was no great loss, and at others they would start to cry. But I was destined to remain a virgin. One day, I screwed up the courage to put aside my anger and question Dorothy, the least intimidating of the two elderly women.

“You poor thing!”

And, after a few sighs, she came out with the usual reply:

“What point is there in your knowing, since it can’t happen to you?’

“Because I want to know!” I raged, suddenly grasping why it was so important to me.

She couldn’t understand why someone would want knowledge that would be of no use to them, and I couldn’t get anything out of her. It was certain that I would die untouched, and I wanted to satisfy my curiosity at least. Why were they all so determined to keep silent? I tried to console myself with the thought that it was no secret anyway, because they all shared it. Was it to give it an additional sparkle that they refused to tell me, to give it the luster of a rare gem? By remaining silent, they were creating a girl who didn’t know and who would regard them as the custodians of a treasure. Did they only keep me in ignorance so they could pretend they weren’t entirely powerless? They sometimes claimed it was out of modesty, but I could see perfectly well that, among themselves, they had no modesty. They whispered and tittered and were lewd. I would never make love, they would never make love again: perhaps that made us equal and they were trying to console themselves by depriving me of the only thing they could.


Excerpt from I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman, translated by Ros Schwartz. Published by Transit Books. Copyright © 2022.

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